By 1961, a group of artists coming out of the Royal College of Art
including David Hockney, RB Kitaj, Peter Phillips, Allen Jones, Derek
Boshier and Patrick Caulfield had put Pop Art on the map.
The Pop artists shot to fame and fashionability very swiftly, and
were much celebrated in the press.
In 1966, Time Magazine published its London: the Swinging City issue.
By 1968, for the first time in the twentieth century, London had become
the focus for the international art world.
But the reason London became a focus was not just due to Pop Art. The
Sixties art scene here was actually very diverse and made up of co-existing
and competing art movements.
Alongside Pop, there was also a new interest in Abstraction.
This was largely the result of the influence of US abstraction (eg Pollock,
Rothko, de Kooning, Noland, Newman).
Painter Richard Smith - a huge star in the Sixties - merged Abstract
Expressionist gestural marks with the commercial subject matter of Pop
Other successful abstract painters at that time included Bridget Riley,
Robyn Denny, John Hoyland, Gillian Ayres and Paul Huxley.
Sixties British Sculpture was also looking radically
new. Anthony Caro was the trailblazer. His interest in colour and abstraction
was the result of a trip to the States and an encounter with Clement
Out went the Henry Moore-type figurative bronzes on plinths, and in
came brightly coloured, abstract shapes sitting on the floor, made out
of sheet metal and plastic.
Caro influenced a whole generation of sculptors at St Martin's School
of Art - notably enfant terrible Phillip King - now President of the
Within St Martin's, another group reacted strongly against Caro and
King. These were the Conceptualists and Performance Artists,
who were against the fabrication of objects and the preoccupation with
From the early Sixties, artists such as Gustav Metzger (Auto-Destructive
Art), Stuart Brisley, Richard Long and John Latham saw themselves in
angry opposition to the Abstract artists. They were much more interested
in content and ideas.
Real enmities developed, and private views often witnessed extremely
Latham famously ate (literally) art critic Greenberg's book Art and
Culture. The copy he ate came from the St Martin's library - and he
was promptly sacked!
The most infamous of this group of performance artists were the duo
Gilbert and George, who began their careers as 'living sculptures' at
St Martins by serving up baked beans in ice cream cones to their fellow
students as a form of Conceptual Sculpture.
They would go on to create and film a number of iconic performances
including Gordon's Makes Us Drunk, where the pair simply drink Gordon's
Gin until they are intoxicated, and Underneath the Arches, where they
perform a simple, recurring set of actions whilst miming to a looped
version of the old Flanagan and Allen classic.
By the end of the Sixties, fashions had changed and the moment was
The incredible success of Pop and Abstraction had passed very rapidly.
The early Seventies saw the rise of Conceptual and Performance Art
and the dematerialization of the art object.
But the Sixties will always be remembered as the decade that blew the
idea of just what art could be wide-open, allowing new ideas on form,
concept and the role and purpose of the artist to flourish.
It was also the decade during which cross-pollination between artistic
fields was most fertile - whether in terms of painter Kenneth Noland's
colourful influence on Abstract Sculpture or the influence of painters
such as Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake on record sleeve art.
In this way, the Sixties art scene in London was the seedbed of innumerable
creative trends, and was one of the most exciting and varied hotbeds
of talent that the art world has ever seen.
Vanessa Engle, producer Art and the 60s